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Bérénice 1934-44

An Actress in Occupied Paris

Isabelle Stibbe

The winner of nine literary awards in France, including the Prix Simone Veil, celebrating a woman of action, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris is Isabelle Stibbe’s poignant debut novel. Now translated into English by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel, Bérénice 1934–44 reveals a young woman’s struggle to fulfill her career aspirations while concealing herself in war-torn France.

Bérénice yearns to become an actress, but her parents insist that career is not proper for a girl. She defies her Jewish family to become the leading younger actress in the Comédie-Française, France’s most renowned theater, right when the Nazis occupy France. Bérénice hides her true identity and last name to avoid detection. Living in a world without tolerance and torn between two lovers, Bérénice must choose between her passion for the stage, and her allegiance to freedom and to her Jewish heritage.

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Chez Capel was not the Rothschilds’, that’s for sure. Moishe Kapeluchnik was born around 1870 in a little Russian shtetl. His father, Abraham, had tried his hand at a little of every profession, depending on what heaven decided to send his way. That’s how, in less than thirty years, he worked in turn as a delivery boy, peddler, herring salesman, tailor, shoemaker, grinding machine operator in an umbrella factory, and even a beadle, but by the time Moishe entered the world, he had become a furrier and most likely remained so to the end of his days. His mother, Myriam, had already given birth to eight children when little Moishele made his appearance. From his birth, he was a tough and scrappy baby who had made up his mind to carve a niche for himself in that large family. At the Kapeluchniks’ there wasn’t enough money for the children to be educated so Moishe just learned to read and write with the rabbi, at the cheder.

It all seemed natural to him at the time, because he had no other reference point. It was only later that he realized that his parents’ marriage must not have been happy. His mother, aged prematurely by varicose veins and miscarriages, turned more and more to religion as she grew older. Fast of Yom Kippur, fast of Esther, fast of Tisha B’av, fast of the first-born, she never missed a single one and strictly followed the rules of kashrut: one...

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